From Alberti to Palladio, Renaissance architects and architectural theorists struggled to interpret the description of the ancient Roman house set forth by Vitruvius in De architectura. The debate concerning the form and function of the atrium-the most essential room of the ancient domus-provides the basis for a case study of the process by which Renaissance readers transformed words into images to visualize the parts of the ancient house. Lacking archaeological remains of the Roman domus, architects were forced to rely on written sources. Their zeal to understand led them to appropriate the philological tools of humanists, explicating Vitruvius's words by reading other texts. The result was a wealth of contradictory information, which permitted, indeed encouraged, a variety of reconstructions of the atrium. During a period of about one hundred years-from the 1450s to the 1560s-the Vitruvian atrium underwent numerous incarnations: a courtyard, a vestibule, a domed octagonal sala, a three-aisled basilica. Despite their often imaginative and probing research, none of the Renaissance architects ever conceived of the atrium exactly as it was in antiquity. Their [mis]interpretations, nonetheless, had an impact on contemporary design. In a period in which patrons wanted houses inspired by antiquity, the reconstructed atriums of Renaissance theorists appeared in the palaces and villas of princes, popes, and cardinals.

This content is only available via PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.